This past spring training - the one that ended earlier this month - Albert Pujols tied for the league-lead with seven home runs. He batted .383, he slugged .850, and he walked seven times against just four strikeouts. Not too many people noticed or cared, because it was Albert Pujols putting up big numbers. Why wouldn't Albert Pujols put up big numbers? That's the whole thing about Albert Pujols. The other guys with big numbers, guys like Matt Hague and Ryan Raburn and Lorenzo Cain - those were the guys worth talking about. Those were guys from whom big numbers weren't taken for granted.
Albert Pujols faced his very last spring-training pitch on Wednesday, April 4. It was a 95.1 mile-per-hour fastball out of the hand of Nathan Eovaldi. The fastball was thigh-high, over the inner edge, and Pujols turned on it, knocking it out to left field. The game was played in Dodger Stadium.
Since then, nothing. Which means nothing meaningful. I shouldn't say nothing meaningful - Pujols has 17 hits and seven doubles and four runs driven in. But he hasn't hit a home run. After April 4, the Angels began regular-season play on Friday, April 6. On Thursday, April 26, Pujols batted 1-for-4 with a groundball single. He has now played 19 games, and batted 82 times, and he hasn't gone deep. As you could guess, if you didn't already know, Pujols is trapped in the longest homerless streak of his career.
He's getting attention. A guy like Albert Pujols can't hope to avoid attention when he goes nearly a month without hitting a home run in his first year after signing a mammoth contract. The Pujols situation might actually be good news for a few other guys. Torii Hunter doesn't have a home run. Nobody's really talking about it. Andrew McCutchen doesn't have a home run. Nobody's really talking about it. Giancarlo Stanton doesn't have a home run. Nobody's really talking about it. People are talking about Albert Pujols. People are increasingly talking about Albert Pujols and the homerless streak that just won't end, until it finally does, on some unknown date and off some unknown pitch.
Pujols is saying all the right things. All of his numbers are down, not just his homers. But if he's letting it get to him, he won't admit that he's letting it get to him. He says he's not frustrated. He says he's not trying to hit home runs. He says this might actually be good for his teammates, as they get to measure his character. But something to consider about Albert Pujols is that he isn't really a machine, despite the nickname. He can't block all of this out. Some of it has to seep in, and when Pujols finally hits that first dinger, I suspect you'll see a lot of frustration get released from his system.
One can't help but wonder how different the situation would be if Pujols had at least one home run to his name. Just one, to get it out of the way. Courtesy of Texas Leaguers, we have a map of the balls he's put in play:
Pujols has been pull-happy, but he's hit some balls deep. In fact, there was one in particular that he hit not too long ago. On April 19, against the A's, Pujols doubled three times. Those are his most recent extra-base hits. Allow me to present to you one of those doubles:
You see the fans standing up, readying themselves to celebrate Pujols' first dinger as an Angel, and Pujols' first home dinger as an Angel. The ball comes inches short. Literally, inches. It bounces off the very top of the wall, and comes back in play. Pujols pulls up at second, after almost having been able to trot all the way around.
I have seen non-homers that came closer to being homers, but I haven't seen a whole lot of them. Pujols just missed. The box score tells me the first-pitch temperate was 67 degrees. What if it was 72 degrees? The box score tells me the wind was blowing six miles per hour out to center. What if it was blowing eight or nine miles per hour out to center? What if it wasn't blowing at all during this particular fly ball? It's not like game wind has a constant speed and a constant direction.
Albert Pujols came that close to his first home run. If you just replace a double with a home run in his numbers, it doesn't change much. His numbers are still well below where you'd expect them to be. Pujols would still be slumping. But he wouldn't be slumping in the same way, because it's a lot different to be a slugger with one home run instead of zero home runs. People write different columns, they ask different questions, they say different things at the ballpark. If Pujols weren't getting shut out, the depths wouldn't seem as deep.
And, who's to say this would just replace a double with a homer? Who's to say that, if that carried an extra foot, Pujols wouldn't have subsequently caught fire, or regressed to his normal self? They say the first one's always the hardest. They say the pressure comes off when the first one's behind you. If that ball carries an extra foot, maybe Pujols gets locked in. Maybe he hits like the guy he was just a few weeks ago. The psychology changes, and when the psychology changes, it stands to reason that there could be other changes, changes you see in statistics.
That fly ball didn't carry an extra foot. Baseball really is a game of inches, in every single way. It's Friday, April 27, and we're still talking about Albert Pujols sitting on zero home runs. I don't know how much longer this is going to go on, but I know how close it came to coming to an end. It'll all feel so different for everybody when he finally hits that first one. The world's waiting for him to hit that first one.